Constitutional Topic: The Cabinet – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

Constitutional Topic: The Cabinet


The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented
to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ
. This Topic Page concerns the Cabinet, the group of people that head
the various departments of the Executive Branch and to whom the President
advises and gets advice from. The Cabinet is only mentioned briefly in the
Constitution, in Article 2, Section 2 with the
words “he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each
of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their
respective Offices,” and in the 25th Amendment
Section 4.

[The President] may require the Opinion, in writing, of the
principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject
relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

Without saying so directly, the Constitution created the Cabinet with those
words. Note, however, that the Constitution does not go into what the executive
departments will be, how many there will be, or what their duties should

The Cabinet consists of several people, though primarily the members are as
the Constitution suggests: the principal officer in each of the executive
departments. We call these people Secretaries. In other countries, they are
typically called Ministers. The cabinet concept, embodied by the Privy Council,
originated in England. In Britain, the Council evolved into today’s Cabinet, a
legal institution that advises the Prime Minister. In the U.S., the cabinet
has no legal definition. It is just the secretaries of the departments, and a
few other key players. Legal definition notwithstanding, though, the cabinet
has played and continues to play a role in American politics.

The first cabinet, that of George Washington, consisted of only four
department heads; those of State, Treasury, War, and the Attorney General. The
names are familiar: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and
Edmund Randolph held the offices respectively.

The table below lists all departments, the date Congress added them to the
Executive branch, and the first president to appoint a secretary.

Department Date President Notes
State July 27, 1789 Washington Originally Foreign Affairs
Treasury September 2, 1789 Washington  
Defense August 7, 1789 Washington Originally War Department
Justice September 24, 1789 Washington Originally Office of Attorney General
Navy April 30, 1798 Adams, J. Merged into Defense in 1947
Post Office February 20, 1792 Washington Removed from Cabinet level in 1972
Interior March 3, 1849 Taylor  
Agriculture May 15, 1862 Cleveland  
Commerce and Labor February 14, 1903 Roosevelt, T. Split into Commerce and Labor in 1913
Commerce March 4, 1913 Wilson Originally Commerce and Labor
Labor March 4, 1913 Wilson Originally Commerce and Labor
Health, Education and Welfare April 11, 1953 Eisenhower Split into Health and Human Services and Education in 1979
Housing and Urban Development September 9, 1965 Johnson, L.  
Transportation October 16, 1966 Johnson, L.  
Energy August 4, 1977 Carter  
Health and Human Services September 27, 1979 Carter Originally Health, Education and Welfare
Education September 27, 1979 Carter Originally Health, Education and Welfare
Veterans Affairs October 25, 1988 Bush, G.H.W.  
Homeland Security November 25, 2002 Bush, G.W.  

What had been four departments is now fifteen. In the cabinet are also the
Vice President and any other person in the executive department that the
President wishes, such as the Ambassador to the U.N. or a National Security

Since cabinet members are usually department heads, they are appointed by
the President and confirmed by the Senate. Other than confirmation, there are
no legal or constitutional requirements for the job. They serve at the whim of
the President. They may, however, be impeached as any federal officer may be.
Unlike in many other countries, members of the cabinet are not members of the
legislature. In fact, the Constitution prohibits any member of the Congress
from being an officer of the government.

Typically, the cabinet meets on a regular basis, such as weekly. However,
because the cabinet is not a legal institution, meetings can be at any interval.
In fact, the cabinet may not necessarily ever meet at all. In fact, there need
not even be a cabinet. Some have questioned the need for a cabinet, and some
modern presidents made little use of them. Since the subject matter apropos to
any department varies so widely with that of the others, discussions can break
down into turf wars. Former cabinet member Zbigniew Brzezinski told of using
the time to catch up on newspapers and magazines.

So what role does the cabinet play? It is a place of support for the
President and his policies, and the press play the cabinet up as a big source
for consensus and discussion in any government. Probably closer to the truth is
that the President meets with those cabinet officers whose departments have
authority over the crisis of the day, and the whole cabinet is just a useful
way to refer to all the people that make it up.

The Cabinet (as of October 22, 2010):